Yesterday’s reports of clashes between tribespersons and Arab nomads in the contested Abyei region near Sudan’s north-south border, which have so far left 23 people dead, is a stark reminder that even if, as widely predicted, the referendum leads to southern secession the months ahead are going to be very rocky.
Before Sudan can amicably split several sticky issues need to be resolved. The top two are sharing Sudan’s oil and demarcating the border, including the oil rich Abyei area, which both the north and the south claim as their own.
Residents of the central Abyei region were promised their own referendum but disagreement as to how the poll should be conducted has led to its postponement.
All this referendum does is signal whether the south wants to divorce its northern partner. If it does, then Africa’s newest failed state will come into being on 9 July 2011.
What the referendum doesn’t do is settle the terms of the divorce. This arranged marriage has no prenuptial agreement on which to fall back on.
Only time will tell whether the violence of recent days is a harbinger that this divorce, like most divorces, is likely to turn nasty and end in tears. If it does there will be urgent need for arbitration, if not forceful intervention.
In the meantime all we can do is remain vigilant and follow the Archbishop of Canterbury’s advice and pray for a peaceful outcome.